Perhaps more than any other author, Cornelius Castoriadis is one that is read and revisited for a wide range of reasons. Owing to the diversity of his fields of reflection (politics, psychoanalysis, history, epistemology), and also to the scale of his theoretical evolution (from the influence of Marxism to a critique of it), we can read him and study him according to logics that are relatively varied with respect to each other. This is why it is important that I preface my discussion with a methodological detail relative to the reading perspective that will be used here for the texts by Castoriadis published in Socialisme ou Barbarie.
This perspective will not be sociohistorical, studying the theoretical positions of Castoriadis according to the social and political contexts of the journal and its collaborators, neither will it fall into the category of a history of ideas attempting to account for the internal coherence of the positions defended by Castoriadis in his texts of the 1950s. These texts will be analyzed retroactively, on the basis of the positions he took in the last decades of his activity (i.e. from the 1970s to his death). Even more to the point, my interest in the texts from Socialisme ou Barbarie was founded in the theoretical loci that seemed the most decisive to me: the question of the circle of creation and the analysis of the ontological arguments concerning chaos.
The analyses that follow are therefore something like a reading in reverse. While being conscious of the teleological risks of such a methodological principle, while not underestimating the trap of a reductionist reading, it seemed as though only this kind of reading could make sense out of texts that otherwise, considered on their own terms, could seem fairly dated and largely dependent on an obsolete theoretical and political context. Beyond their clear-cut aspect here, which requires further development, these assessments do not claim to absolutely and definitively encompass the meaning behind Castoriadis’s contributions to Socialisme ou Barbarie; they are only here as a preliminary in order to situate the meaning of the analyses to follow, according to inevitably unusual theoretical hypotheses.
This is why these texts will be analyzed here: because something in them escapes their militant, revolutionary, Marxist-inspired tone. Otherwise they would risk becoming only the reflection of their time, a period in the history of thought. Moreover, we could say that it was partly through Castoriadis’s later positions that these texts became largely obsolete for us.
On the basis of these methodological presuppositions, it is possible to infer the theoretical locus to be discussed here: the question of the party and of organization. This choice may seem strange given how enmeshed this locus seems to be in a political context or climate that is structured by expectations of revolution that are now less obvious. And yet something comes into play there that goes beyond the mere question of the modes of revolutionary organization; in fact, the question of the advent of the new appears, a question that remained a constant for Castoriadis, admittedly in new theoretical contexts but ones that never concealed, in my view, that silent continuity. The proposed reading of a few texts from Socialisme ou Barbarie devoted to the question of form and the role of revolutionary organization will therefore afford an opportunity to measure the hybrid nature of these texts, a sign both of the theoretical consistency of Castoriadis concerning his questions and of the evolution of the theoretical paradigms that he puts in place to respond to them.
These principles for the readings essentially seek to account for the varied nature of these texts, which will inevitably leave their mark on the reader used to Castoriadis’s later work. They are almost composite texts that arouse mixed feelings, of closeness but also of distance; moreover, they are texts that are difficult to analyze given that the tension that structures them can end up placing the emphasis on either one component or another.
The texts relative to the question of organization will therefore be read not for themselves, according to their internal economy in, for example, a politicist perspective attempting to identify and rediscover the destiny of revolutionary organizations questioning the nature of their connection with the masses. This issue was of course important to Socialisme ou Barbarie, as many texts attest;
See Philippe Caumières’s analysis in Castoriadis: Le... it also gave rise to disagreements, leading some members, such as Claude Lefort, to leave the group.
Our problematic, however, will be different, as it will try to probe for a possible undisclosed unity to Castoriadis’s queries, if not his actual positions. A state of this kind covering his entire history could not be all-encompassing, as a comparative reading of the texts that appeared in Socialisme ou Barbarie and those republished in the various volumes of Les Carrefours du labyrinthe
Translator’s note: The first of these volumes, Les... reveals clearly different notions and theoretical frameworks. Our main concern, then, will be to determine the mixture of permanence and change, a mixture inherent in any creation. Furthermore, this notion of creation will prove to be the impulse behind the analysis of the organization that Castoriadis performed: organizations could never control the unpredictable nature of proletarian action. Reflections on organization within a militant framework lead to the containment and consideration of this dimension of unpredictability, of inalienable creation that nothing can describe and foretell in advance. The focus of our reading becomes clearer: it will consist in defining Castoriadis’s commitment to a fundamental object of thought for him (creation, newness, and their unpredictability) and the undeniable evolution of the theoretical frameworks allowing it to be considered.
The analysis of organization takes the form of an antinomy. The clearest wording is found in "Proletarian Leadership," published in 1952: "Revolutionary activity of the type inaugurated by Marxism is dominated by a profound antinomy that may be defined in the following terms: On the one hand, this activity is founded upon a scientific analysis of society […]; on the other hand, the most important factor, the decisive factor for this perspective and for this anticipation on the future, is the creative activity of tens of millions of people."
Cornelius Castoriadis, "La direction prolétarienne,"... Castoriadis revisited this idea in "Prolétariat et organisation II": "There are always two terms in each of the problems that arise in revolutionary thought, as in the actual process of class struggle and the revolution."
C. Castoriadis, "Prolétariat et organisation II," Socialisme...
This antinomy is characterized by the apparent contradiction between its theoretically insoluble nature and its solution through time and practice: Castoriadis emphasizes "the very kind of antinomy that cannot be resolved on the theoretical level," then adding that "[t]he solution to this contradiction is to be found in part over time."
C. Castoriadis, "La direction prolétarienne," 11, 13,... Observers have subsequently emphasized to what extent this antinomic form continued to structure Castoriadis’s analyses; for now, we will retain two aspects of this antinomy in particular.
Firstly, there is the decisive place given to the notion of creation. This notion, destined to assume a fundamental role in Castoriadis’s later theoretical system, is already present. It appears many times in "Proletarian Leadership,"
C. Castoriadis, ibid., 10, 11, 13, quoted in La Question... which is the sign of its theoretical importance. Indeed, the unexpected, unpredictable dimensions of political reality emerge from the creative aspect. But these characteristics are decisive ones for the critique of an excessively deterministic conception of the analysis of reality. Attentiveness to the unexpected elements of creation allows for a limit on Marxist reductionism, the overly exclusive attention paid to the economy that Castoriadis had already noted at the time. There is an excess in creation that the conditions under which creation takes place cannot reduce or completely explain: "There is, therefore, an autonomous development of the proletariat toward socialism […] But this development is not the mechanical, automatic result of the objective conditions in which the proletariat lives, nor is it a biological evolution […]."
C. Castoriadis, "Prolétariat et organisation I," in... The analyses of creation in these texts do not go as far as the ontological grounding that characterizes the later texts; creation is only approached here to emphasize the excesses inherent in the effects of practice. Nevertheless, the attention to the uniqueness of creation as well as the appearance of the notion of excess constitute one of the characteristic markers of what, from this point, can almost be discerned as Castoriadis’s philosophy.
In the introduction, we emphasized the possible risks of a reading in reverse, and yet this is what we will be doing. One of these risks consists in favoring the continuities, overestimating them in a teleological naïveté that, conversely, underestimates the complexity of the moment analyzed. And so we should remain attentive to the unique nature of the propositions presented in the period of Socialisme ou Barbarie, while identifying what constitutes the seeds of later developments. But that unique nature appears by way of what will be described as inherited elements, in the sense that Castoriadis gives to this notion of inherited thought. These texts are, in fact, still enmeshed for the most part in an inherited theoretical matrix, a realist matrix, even though creation has been identified, located and examined.
We may identify two characteristics of this inherited dimension: a conception of the objectivity of reality on the one hand, a conception of consciousness and a paradigm of clarity on the other. In addition, we should probably keep in mind the dualist model here: the role of consciousness can only be understood in relation to a reality that dictates that role or allows for its identification.
The first element is what, to a large extent, structures the analysis: there exists an objective reality whose meaning is univocal, the true foundation of the analysis. Reality is stable, and the vocabulary of objectivity is extensively employed: the revolutionary overthrow is not a question of "will," but "is made possible […] by one great objective fact."
C. Castoriadis, ibid., I," 74, quoted in La Question... Unlike the later texts, therefore, creation is not considered within the framework of a chaotic ontology: here reality exists in itself, while the unpredictability of creation is still examined from within these essentially constrictive theoretical bounds.
Consciousness is the second element, considered as the second pole of a relation tying it to reality, which therefore exists beforehand. The references are numerous: Castoriadis emphasizes the "formation of the consciousness of the proletariat,"
C. Castoriadis, ibid., 78, quoted in La Question du... while socialism requires a "conscious action."
C. Castoriadis, ibid. II," 64, quoted in La Question... A "development of consciousness"
C. Castoriadis, "Bilan," Socialisme ou Barbarie 26... is therefore necessary, without which nothing will be possible. This analysis is then something like a philosophy of history embodied in a subject, and only this subject will make a conclusion possible. As a component of a Marxist schema, the proletariat is the vector of revelation for reality, which is the objective pole of the relation.
Within this framework, the role of the organization is decisive. It may not represent the locus for resolving the antinomy mentioned earlier, but it is at least a practical vector for transformation. The organization is actually the locus where consciousness comes into being; thanks to it, consciousness will develop in relation to the reality with which it is confronted, almost more than the reality in which it is located. As a consequence, the organization becomes decisive, as it will be able to work out the connection between objective reality and consciousness, in such a way that the workers can "become aware of the awareness they already possess."
C. Castoriadis, "Prolétariat et organisation I," 83... This proposition is worth dwelling on. This sort of begging of the question can only put a substantial limit on the attention paid to creation, though this attention is equally present in these texts. It helps define the theoretical framework of a tension, the unpredictable creation being partly overdetermined by the proletarian consciousness whose awakening is the organization’s only raison d’être. The realm of revelation (i.e. of what exists already) enters into tension with that of unpredictable creation (i.e. that which transgresses). The paradigm of creation therefore remains caught in the web of a reality that preexists it; it is not yet the paradigm of a creation ex nihilo.
But the domains of "blurring"
C. Castoriadis, "Bilan," 12, quoted in La Question... and clarity structure the texts more than the vocabulary of revelation. As reality exists objectively, the organization’s role is to allow the workers to "see clearly":
C. Castoriadis, ibid., 16, quoted in ibid., 264. almost all it has to do is "enlighten,"
C. Castoriadis, ibid., 15, quoted in ibid., 264. in such a way that a "crystallization"
C. Castoriadis, ibid., 12, quoted in ibid., 261. is produced for which the organization was almost nothing more than a "catalyzing agent."
C. Castoriadis, ibid., 12, quoted in ibid., 261.
As we see, in the period prior to the ontological complexity to come, the unpredictability of creation does not involve a revision or a critique of the substantiality of reality. The dimension of uncertainty lies within the register of the relation: reality is not always seen properly, the vision is blurred, clarity is absent. Only the organization – using practices whose results can never be entirely certain, however – is able to participate in this kind of revelation. The theoretical framework of these analyses is still embedded for the most part in the context inherited from a school of thought that is both dualist and realist. In addition, the metaphor of vision and the paradigm of clarity strengthen this inherited dimension, in the wake of Platonic and Cartesian formulations that are also structured by visual metaphors and that take into account the problems that one should know how to overcome.
In the end, the practical work of the organization must be understood under the aegis of reality, without which the begging of the question mentioned earlier is meaningless; reality in itself, its intrinsic organization, is truly what grounds and enlightens the consciousness that one can ultimately have of it. The status of reality, then, is fundamental. This kind of polarization of the analysis, and the understanding that Castoriadis then had of it, contrasted with the analysis put forward by Lefort. Even without going into the details of this divergence,
I refer the reader to my analysis of Lefort’s positions... we can emphasize that the issue was not just one of organization; it also concerned the theoretical model of the analysis, whose inherited and still classical dimension has already been noted in the case of Castoriadis. Even if he is attentive to the proletariat’s power of creation – and other texts of his attest to this for the most part in a fascinating fashion
These analyses are revisited and synthesized in L’Institution... – the paradigm of clear and blurred vision is nonetheless a simplification of the analysis as shown by the begging of the question mentioned earlier. The task of the organization consists in encouraging, in the consciousnesses of the proletariat, "crystallizations" of what reality is and what it produces. Ultimately, not only the consideration of creation, but also the very meaning of praxis, become relativized. Crystallization depends upon a given element that it transforms, while the paradigm of clear and blurred vision prohibits an excessively emergentist understanding of the model of crystallization.
The theoretical model present in the texts that have been mentioned derives from an objectivist, or a realist/dualist, philosophy. The clear attention paid to unpredictability and creation instaurates a tension in these same texts, which should not be seen or understood as a mark of incoherence. We may interpret this tension as the expression corresponding to this period of the antinomic form that Castoriadis would regularly employ in his later texts.
This blended nature, which seems composite in retrospect, has to make an impression on a modern reader who is familiar with Castoriadis’s subsequent work. The issues of organization and the terms in which he analyzes them go well beyond tactical or even strategic aspects. Apart from this description, we can distinguish two dimensions they share, according to their closeness to Castoriadis’s later positions and formulations.
The texts published in Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s undeniably maintain continuity with the rest of Castoriadis’s later work, albeit to a limited degree. The antinomic structure, consisting in trying to account for apparently contradictory dimensions of reality at the same time, is a well-entrenched structure in Castoriadis’s analyses. We shall return to this at the conclusion, but we can already emphasize its special and demanding character: reflection – whether philosophical or, more narrowly, political – is not there to impose a univocal and reductionist framework of analysis upon a complex reality, it has a duty to account for that reality, up to and including these antinomic dimensions. The refusal of antinomy represents one of the limits of inherited thought, despite the efforts of the Hegelians. The second motif of the continuity concerns the task of considering creation. Whether in the context of a consideration of praxis at the time of Socialisme ou Barbarie, or in a context marked more by the later ontological and epistemological grounds, the enigma of the creation of new forms remained one of Castoriadis’s most noticeable objects of thought. We have seen the tension this created in the 1950s; later, this contributed to the critical examination of inherited thought, which is confined to a deterministic schema incapable of grasping the complexity of the act of creation. As we see, this continuity is more along the lines of a consistent concern than it is a matter of perennial concepts. This is one of the other characteristics of Castoriadis’s thinking: to have followed and considered the paths opened by the analysis of reality, instead of allowing that analysis to be swallowed up by a reductionist system.
A third form of continuity references the notion of excess. This notion, which was as previously mentioned already present in the 1950s at the time of Socialisme ou Barbarie, makes it possible to situate the critique of Marxist reductionism.
We should reiterate that the question of how appropriate... The excess of effects over causes became one of the most heuristic theoretical loci in the later texts; we can mention "The Hungarian Source"
Translator’s note: "The Hungarian Source," in Political... in particular. This notion, along with other, perhaps more complicated usage schemes,
In Les Carrefours du labyrinthe, Castoriadis repeatedly... enabled the expression in ensidic language of what non-ensidic reality offers to analysis: the irreducibility of meaning to causation. It is striking to see how a term appears in one context with a meaning that remains reduced, then to observe the possibility of its reuse in a different theoretical context to come. In 1952, excess was not the sign of a chaotic reality; on the other hand, it was already the name for a theoretical dissatisfaction with the denial of newness, with the primacy of a deterministic logic.
We can see a similar situation concerning another notion, which allows for a better sense of all of the complexity of a theoretical evolution giving way to a great unity in his concerns, where the continuity of the questions interacts closely with the evolution of the analytical schemas. It is as if the permanence of the words indicated the profound unity of his concerns, while also enabling the paradigmatic changes that that imposes – for example, the notion of contradiction. The very choice of the notion of contradiction seems, at first glance, to borrow a known analytical schema from the Marxist tradition. For Marx, contradiction is what makes it possible to account for the changes in history without resorting to the idealist logic of Hegel. We know that the contradiction between the relations of production and the productive forces is what accounts for the discontinuities in history between different modes of production. This mode of analysis allows for a break with idealist Hegelian logic by privileging a materialist analysis, providing a basis for its determinate and inevitable character. The question of the analysis of the new, the changing, always returns for those studying history.
But where Marx privileges a logic that is too consistently economic and reductionist, Castoriadis, using the same term, proposes an approach that is already different in Socialisme ou Barbarie, outlining what became more radical in a definitive break with Marxism, as "contradiction" does not mean the same thing for Marx and for Castoriadis. For Castoriadis, the contradiction relates back to the "situation of the proletariat": the problem is that "[t]he workers are not strangers to capitalism; they are born into a capitalist society, live in it, [and] take part in it […]." Their situation is "absolutely contradictory,"
C. Castoriadis, "Prolétariat et organisation I," 62,... as it is torn between capitalist ideas, norms and attitudes on the one hand, and the aspiration for a new world on the other. The "passage from one situation to the other […] appears as […] an absolute contradiction,"
C. Castoriadis, "La direction prolétarienne," 13, quoted... arising from the tension in anything new, caught between the situation from which it emerges and the situation that it helps bring about. Where Marx’s analyses err through their economistic unilateralism and their realism, Castoriadis’s analyses take into account the "contradiction," which is precisely a sign of complexity: there is contradiction because there is a tension between different levels of reality, because in the final analysis there is no determination of reality by one of its components. Contradiction already marks Castoriadis’s attention to the difficult question of the analysis of breaks: historical discontinuities – researched or studied after the fact – contain a dimension that prevails over reason, a dimension that cannot be assessed in a mechanistic, deterministic fashion. The identification of this theoretical locus has thus been made, but the way in which it will be then analyzed is still lacking: it will be the result of a series of critical theoretical breaks, not just with Marxism but also with inherited thought.
The issue of the notion of contradiction concerns the question of the analytical mode of transition, of change in history and its possibility. In these texts, contradiction is already the name of non-determination: it says that reality cannot be treated like something that can be taken apart and demonstrated. As non-determination, it delimits the discontinuities acting upon history. What makes Castoriadis’s analysis special – and this can already be seen in some of the texts in Socialisme ou Barbarie – is his analysis of breaks as radical, "absolute" as he puts it: breaks between two worlds in fact, between two ways of shaping reality that are irreducible to each other. In so doing, these analyses foresee and prepare the ground for what will be worked out later, concerning the tension in language, seeking to express the non-ensidic in ensidic terms, but also concerning the status of otherness. There is contradiction because there is no continuity making it possible to envision the passage from one world to another, any more than there is continuity between two acts of establishing meaning.
Here, we have a good example of the blended nature of the texts in Socialisme ou Barbarie. The language used derives from inherited thought, in this case Marxist thought through the choice of the notion of contradiction. But the usage made of it, the redefinition that is suggested, offers new directions. Already, reality is no longer analyzed the way Marx would have done; it reveals contradictions commensurate with its complex character.
This blended nature stands out again when noting the differences of the Socialisme ou Barbarie texts with those from the 1980s, once the more enduring aspects have been emphasized. Their identification allows us to measure the tension between the quickly delimited theoretical loci (creation, newness) and paradigmatic reformulations that profoundly modify the understanding and analysis of these loci. This makes it possible each time to get a sense of the special, and possibly the exceptional, nature of Castoriadis’s positions during each of the periods of his career. The reading in reverse suggested here then lets us tackle the question of the analytical model and the model of reading of this work: can we detect different moments? Are there changes such that it would be useful and heuristic to identify several among them? The question is not merely academic: it enables a greater appreciation of the dynamic of Castoriadis’s thinking, about which we might think that it consisted in tirelessly returning to a certain subset of questions while updating the conceptual tools and the paradigms capable of addressing them.
Beyond what has just been reiterated – beyond continuities, in other words – reading the texts from Socialisme ou Barbarie (in particular those previously mentioned) reveals an analytical model that would not remain the same in the various volumes of Les Carrefours du labyrinthe. The antinomy that structures them does not have the cutting edge of his later formulations, owing to the conception of reality that underlies it. This will be the hypothesis of our reading: the regulatory role of reality and the objectivist conception of reality are what limit the heuristic scope of the analyses offered. Having delimited it, the analysis appears to be begging the question: reality is such that the proletarian consciousness is already what it will become as a result of organizational work. Objective reality contains in itself the reason behind its analysis and its effective actuality. This is an inordinate status to give reality (a status whose grounds are political, but also epistemological, even if this dimension is not clarified in the texts), a status it would no longer have in Castoriadis’s later positions. At that point in time, the formulation of the questions (which will maintain an antinomic form, as we shall see) then gained theoretical acuity and complexity precisely because the epistemological status of reality no longer resolved in advance the questions asked about it. When Castoriadis maintains that "reality possesses no privilege"
C. Castoriadis, "Les intellectuels et l’histoire,"... or that "the’real’ state of affairs" is nothing but "what the instituted and closed world of meanings of the society considered"
C. Castoriadis, "The Social-Historical: Mode of Being,... has declared as such, the changes in the status of reality – and therefore, the changes in the paradigm – produce a different kind of questioning. The change in history (whether of a revolutionary nature or not) can no longer be analyzed according to what reality is in itself, according to internal contradictions leading inexorably to a resolution (this is already a given in the Socialisme ou Barbarie texts), but neither can it be analyzed according to the work of an organization whose role would be to simply "crystallize" what reality contains and produces. The chaotic ontology, the bottomless nature of the abyss, to use the terms in which Castoriadis would later think, constitute a new theoretical paradigm controlled by the reevaluation of the status of reality. The abandonment of any objective, constrictive dimension of reality and the concomitant assertion of the role of creative imagination contributed to the transformation of the analysis. And yet the attention to what, in the social-historical real, constitutes the very locus of philosophical questioning (i.e. the connection between creation, newness and imagination) would remain the same. The disappearances of the theoretical model of the subject and the paradigm of consciousness and clarity contributed to the development of propositions that would be refined in The Imaginary Institution of Society
C. Castoriadis, L’Institution imaginaire de la société... and the books in the Carrefours series.
The reading proposed here of Castoriadis’s texts devoted to the question of the role of the organization is, as we have said, retroactive, seeking to account for their blended nature, where inherited formulations interrelate with perennial objects and questions. This reading will also, in turn, help grasp how unusual his later positions were, which is due to the ontological and epistemological revisions that led to the chaotic ontology characterizing those positions. We have also said that this is not in any way the only analysis possible. These texts are complex: different strata interrelate within them, none of which can be reduced to one dimension alone. They are hard to comprehend and to read. The hypothesis that we have privileged for our reading has of course been sensitive to the importance of the inherited dimension that is undeniably part of these texts, but they could never be reduced to that dimension.
In concluding, the time has perhaps come to return to what has been described as the antinomic form of these texts, which have often been claimed to represent Castoriadis’s thinking. Obviously, antinomy should not be confused with contradiction. Thinking in an antinomic fashion consists in simultaneously considering two aspects of reality that enter into tension with each other. This means, therefore, considering the complexity of reality without reducing or simplifying it to just one of its dimensions; it also means not imposing a reductionist analytical framework on reality, seeking to force it into the shape one desires.
Castoriadis’s thinking does indeed fall within this antinomic form. For example, he writes: "Two fundamental questions arise in the social-historical domain. First, ’What is it that holds a society together?’ […] [S]econd, ’What is it that brings about other and new forms of society?’"
C. Castoriadis, "The Imaginary: Creation in the Social-Historical... Similarly, he identifies and delimits the non-ensidic dimension of social-historical reality while simultaneously acknowledging that it is impossible to sidestep the question of causality.
In my view, complexity of this kind constitutes one of the keenest qualities of Castoriadis’s thinking; it is also one of the signs of his philosophical uniqueness. In his vocabulary, this has a name: density.
See the definition he gives in "The Imaginary," 12.... Reflections on reality confront us with this mystery: reality is open to ensidic ordering, but it could never be reduced to that. Therefore, consideration of social-historical reality consists in being attentive to the antinomic dimension of questions. The texts published in Socialisme ou Barbarie, in another context and using another vocabulary, were already proof of this.